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Liability 101

Whether or not the operator is at fault, a roadway accident involving farm equipment and another motor vehicle can lead to lengthy court proceedings and expose the operator to both civil and criminal liabilities. The owner of the vehicle and farming operation can also be held responsible for the accident.

Before you find yourself in a lawsuit after you or one of your drivers is involved in an accident, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the laws and legal terminology that can be complex and difficult to understand.  

The following information will help you learn the differences between criminal and civil law, the basic elements of negligence and the form of comparative negligence that’s applicable in your state. It will also serve as a useful reference as you read related case studies, offering insights to help you prevent future losses. This article is not a substitute for legal advice; you should consult with an attorney in your state for any questions.

Criminal law vs. civil law

Criminal law includes cases in which the government prosecutes an individual for violating a criminal law or statute. The burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, the government must prove that a reasonable person would not have any doubt as to whether the person is responsible for the violation. Penalties or fines and/or imprisonment may apply.

Civil law addresses private lawsuits, and involves cases in which one individual takes legal action against another, seeking damages suffered due to another’s actions. The burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence. This means that the jury will find in your favor if it concludes that it’s more likely that your actions caused the other party to suffer damages or injuries. Civil cases may be handled by your insurance company and would be ultimately tried in a civil court room. 

One of the primary distinctions between a case tried in civil court vs. criminal court is that just because a law has not been broken does not mean that a civil jury will not find the defendant negligent for his/her actions. Even though someone is not convicted of criminal charges, a jury may conclude that the defendant failed to exercise the care a reasonable prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances.


Negligence is the failure to exercise the care a reasonable prudent person would under similar circumstances.

The four basic elements of negligence are as follows:

  • Duty owed to a party (Example: Every driver has a duty to other drivers to operate vehicle carefully.)
  • Breach of that duty (Example: A driver operates a vehicle at an unsafe speed.)
  • The breach of duty directly cases injury or damage (Example: A driver fails to stop at a stop sign, resulting in an auto accident and injuries/damages to the other driver/vehicle.)
  • Proof of damages or actual loss that is sustained (Example: Hospital treatment records and corresponding medical bills.) 

Imputed negligence/vicarious liability

There are several types of negligence. This particular type involves the negligence of one person being imputed or assumed by another:

  • Servant – The negligence of a “servant” is imputed to the “master” when the servant’s negligent act is committed within the scope of the servant’s employment.
  • Independent contractor – The “master” is generally not responsible for the negligence of an independent contractor over whom the master exercises no control. 
  • Joint enterprise – When two or more persons take part in a joint undertaking with a common purpose and mutual rights of control is a joint enterprise. Generally, any negligence of one party will be imputed to others.

Note: These rules generally apply to all states, but may vary based upon unique state laws.

Comparative negligence

There are also four forms of comparative negligence. Each state has adopted one of these forms into law. The four forms include:

  • Contributory fault – If the injured party is a mere 1% at fault, the injured person’s claim may be barred.
  • Pure comparative fault – The injured party may recover damages for whatever percent of damages for which they are NOT at fault.  (This is the most liberal venue.)
  • Modified comparative – There are two modified comparative negligence doctrines in the U.S.
    • Not greater than modified comparative – Under this form, the injured party can recover as long as their negligence was not greater than the negligence of the defendant.  In the case where both persons are found to be equally at fault (50/50), then each could recover 50% of their damages from the other party. If a party is found to be 51% at fault, then that party is barred from recovery.
    • Not as great as modified comparative – Under this form, the injured party is allowed recovery when their negligence is not as great as the other party. In this form, the party has to be found 49% or less at fault in order to recover. If both parties are found to be equally at fault (50/50), then both parties are barred from recovery.
  • Slight vs. gross – Under this form, the comparative negligence rule is applied only in cases where the plaintiff’s contributory negligence is not more than slight. South Dakota is the only state that operates under this form. It is not a well-defined form.

The following map outlines which form of negligence each state has adopted. Also included are the generic statutes of limitations for each state.

The general rule is that the venue (or governing law) of the case is where the accident or incident occurred. The venue in which an accident or incident occurs can greatly change the outcome of any potential settlement based on what rules you have to apply. The same type of accident that occurs in a state shaded in yellow could have a very different outcome than in a state shaded in blue. That’s because of the different forms of comparative fault the two states have adopted.

Note that there are specific provisions to understand in the application of the form of negligence or statute of limitations adopted by each state. For example, in Colorado, the personal injury statute of limitations for motor vehicle accidents is three years, while for other claims, it is two years.